Last week I went back to Arizona to see my family. Fucking finally. This trip was supposed to happen over the holidays, but my whole family in AZ, seriously, the lot of them, tested positive for COVID less than twenty-four hours before we were supposed to fly out. We had already checked-in for the flight and pulled the suitcases up out of the garage. It was so disappointing. My husband and I debated for an hour whether there was some way, any way, some sort of hidden loophole, that would let us see them them, but if there’s one thing that’s clear two years into pandemic living, it’s that you can’t fly to the COVID. My daughter sobbed for hours. Not too long ago, I would have cried too, but my own tears don’t flow like they used to since I started taking an SSRI in October. These days, my intense emotions manifest more often as exhaustion. We spent the week between Christmas and New Year at home. I’d already taken the time off of work and I slept in every day. We played a lot of video games on the Nintendo Switch my husband managed to snag at the last minute from a GameStop at the mall.
It’s possible my lack of emotional response was not entirely due to the meds. It’s possible that after two years of tragedy, I recognize missing out on a family holiday for what it is: not that big a deal. At least my family’s still alive. Not for any great amount of trying on their part. When they all came down with COVID, it came out that adults in my family had passed on vaccinating large swaths of their eligible children, and not one single member of my family (aside from my husband and myself) had gone in for a booster. It’s hard to cry over disappointments that don’t rise to the level of tragedy, especially if they were preventable.
It’s also possible that after two years of tragedy, I no longer recognize trauma with a “little t”. So we haven’t seen my husband’s family in over three years. So my parents are getting old. So my grandma’s hearing is so bad we can barely talk on the phone. So my conversations with my brother are reduced to arguments about the vaccine. So my daughter is growing up without her grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. So whatever sense of community we once had fell apart and all of us (husband, daughter, me) are still trying to figure out how to cope with the social-emotional fallout of isolation. Maybe these are all tragedies and I’m too tired to cry.
We finally made it back to Arizona as a family last week. The two year anniversary of shut down came and went while we were out of state. When I realized we’d missed the date, I couldn’t believe it. How could my body let me move on without acknowledging everything we’ve lost? Well it didn’t. I came back to this space to write about our most recent trip to Arizona, but the only words I could find were for the trip we didn’t take.
COVID risk is manageable enough for me to do all the things I really want to do while remaining enough of a threat for me to skip out on the things I didn’t want to do anyway. Yeah, I understand people are still dying, but on my personal risk map, the levels are near perfect. In August, I passed up tickets to see the Mountain Goats at SPACE because I didn’t want to risk a breakthrough infection when Delta was peaking. We saw the Drive-By Truckers at an outdoor venue in September and I spent the next week two weeks second waiting for every tickle in my throat to morph into something worse. Somehow I stayed healthy; plenty of people didn’t. In recent weeks, my reticence is dropping with the case rates. Here’s what I am doing these days: working out at the gym, hosting indoor play dates, going to book club, going to church, eating in restaurants, getting massages, and going to the doctor. Here’s what I’m not doing: getting my hair done, shopping when I don’t need anything, traveling for work, traveling for the holidays, hosting dinners, going to the dentist, or seeking out crowds. COVID is a lot like religion, it turns out. A convenient excuse to live exactly as you were going to live, a way to justify decisions you were already going to make, and a source of moral high ground to judge anybody who’s doing it differently.
Life’s not exactly back to normal. Yesterday I dropped my daughter off at Sunday School and found myself with nowhere to go because the group I used to meet up with on Sunday mornings is still meeting virtually. They met weekly all through the pandemic and, from what I hear, became closer than ever. I wouldn’t know. I logged in all of twice. As my friend J says, Zoom is for the birds. I’m not about to complain about an hour to myself, though. I thought about settling into the pews early to do some writing and maybe strike up a conversation with church people but I really didn’t want to spend the rest of the morning sweating behind my mask while the radiators worked overtime to heat up the old stone building. Also, truth be told, I wanted to be with people, but didn’t really want to talk to them. I walked out the door, feeling brazen, and into the coffee ship across the street, where I ordered a small drip, parked myself in a seat by the window, and read a magazine mask- and guilt-free.
Last summer, my friend M stopped by for a few hours on her way from Michigan to Iowa. We sat outside in camp chairs, distanced and masked, and she told me what she’d been up to the last few months, which was a lot. Besides quitting her job and moving cross country she was planning a wedding and had gone home for a funeral. She told me about what it was like to fly during lock down. “Nobody wanted to wear masks for that long, so we bought food and took a really long time pretending to eat.” I loved that story. I laughed out loud when she said. It was so honest. And if I was being honest, I could relate. Wasn’t I on my third beverage of the night? Looking for loopholes, taking cues from people around you to see what you can get away with while staying with in the bounds of social acceptability, what could be more human? Acknowledging that the new restrictions were deeply shitty while making an 80% effort to adhere to them was a relief after striving for 100% and perpetually falling short. Yet when I shared my friend’s story with other people, they didn’t get it. To me it was an offering of absurdity and relatability. “That’s horrible,” they said, wagging their fingers. “That’s why I’m not flying. That’s why people keep getting sick.”
My god. Can we not admit that this sucks? Can we not talk about what’s going on without squeezing out every opportunity to shame somebody who made a different choice? Even if it was a morally questionable one? I used to get off on being morally impeccable too, but that way of living is not sustainable, especially if your values are not your own, and the rules keep changing. It’s also unbelievably isolating. You might think you’ve found a pack in the people who hate the same things you do, but they’ll turn on you as soon as you crack. And you will crack, believe me. You’ll find a way to live the way you want to live, and it might meet your standards, but if you’re honest about your motivations somebody else will shake their head.
On Sunday, I wanted a coffee but I also wanted to sit inside with other people without a mask. I reckon plenty of other people did, too. Actually, I know they did, because I saw them, and when I saw them I smiled.
I’m back in the Midwest after an epic eight-day excursion to the desert and I expect that I’ll be processing the experience of seeing my family for the first time in eighteen months for awhile. In the meantime, what I want to say about the trip is this: I’m so glad I waited.
I’m glad I waited until both my husband and I were fully vaccinated. I’m glad I waited until my daughter was done with school. I’m glad I waited until everyone in family who wanted a shot had the opportunity to get one. I’m glad I waited until Arizona fell off the orange list in Chicago’s travel advisory for people traveling stateside. I’m glad I waited until the CDC updated its guidance for vaccinated folks. I’m glad I waited until the country re-opened.
It was almost impossible to say no when my family asked me to fly out back in November to celebrate my dad’s sixtieth, and only slightly less difficult to say no when my sister asked if she could come visit in March. It killed me to watch my daughter turn seven and then eight without hugging her grandparents or playing with her cousins. I missed them all so much I re-visited the decision to raise my own family in Chicago–a decision I once held fast and firm and close to my heart–on a near-daily basis. I may have been a black sheep, but my family always wanted me around, and I hated being stranded on the other side of the country from them. I hated staying put. I hated being stuck at home. I spent every minute of the quarantine gnawing the bars of my self-imposed cage and now that the latch has been lifted, the only thing I can think is that it was worth it.
It was worth waiting so that I could sit with my 88-year-old grandma at her kitchen table instead of outside in the hundred-degree heat. It was worth it so we could huddle together over old family photo albums instead of passing them back and forth between lawn chairs spaced six feet apart. It was worth it so she didn’t have to nod along pretending to hear me while I tried to make myself heard through a mask. It was worth it watching my daughter approach her so tentatively, nervous in the way that kids often are, and lean in anyway for a hug.
It was worth waiting so that when my sister hesitantly asked if I was up for taking the kids to an outdoor pool, I could scream “YES!” before she finished her sentence. It was worth it so I could let all four kids cling onto me like sea monkeys without worrying about germs. It was worth it so we could crash around with our eyes closed playing Marco Polo with strangers. It was worth it so we could line up like sardines waiting for the tube slide and the high dive.
It was worth waiting so that when my brother made reservations in downtown Gilbert, I could go along and enjoy the meal instead of freaking out, forcing him to cancel, or staying home while everyone else dined inside. It was worth it getting dressed up in my dressiest shorts and squeezing around a too-small table to eat too much food with my too-big family.
It was worth waiting so that I could walk around the swap meet in Mesa without passing judgment on the maskless hordes. It was worth it so that instead of boiling over when I walked past the double-wide stall hawking Trump memorabilia, all I did was laugh.
It was worth waiting so that I could flip through records at Zia and play heirloom guitars at Acoustic Vibes without feeling like an asshole, without having to reassure myself “at least I’m shopping local.”
It was worth waiting so that I could say yes to an impromptu invitation to from a dear friend.
It was worth waiting so that I could stay as long as I wanted and stay up as late as I wanted night after night without feeling like I was pushing my luck.
It was worth waiting until the trip back home felt like a reunion instead of a calculated risk.
For all the havoc it wreaked on our lives over the last year and a half, except for the occasional mask in businesses that required them, the pandemic barely registered last week. June in Arizona may be scorching, but the trip wasn’t all sunny. When COVID cropped up in conversation it was for the worst reasons. An old family friend on a ventilator, for more than ten days, improving only incrementally, according to the text updates my mom read out loud throughout the week. She didn’t trust the vaccine. My dad’s colleague also in the hospital, and doing even worse. In his case, it was his wife that was anti-vax. It’s senselessly tragic that they are suffering in the final stages of the disease for no reason at all.
I’m glad I waited long enough to know I’m not contributing to any of that.
Tonight I’m flying to see my family for the first time in eighteen months. I’ve been dying for this day to come, cried buckets of tears over not seeing my grandma and parents and little brothers and sister and nephews for so long, and now that it’s here I’m uneasy.
I’m uneasy about leaving my town. I thought I’d grown to loathe it over the last year, but last night I took my daughter to the library to stock up on books for the plane and as we walked around downtown I felt a pang thinking of not seeing all the little restaurants and storefronts even for a week.
I’m uneasy about leaving my plants. It’s going to be hot as hell here next week. Will my husband remember to water the vegetables? Will he think to drag the hose all the way through the house to hit the decorative plants in the front? Will he know to move the impatiens into the shade when they wilt? Will be remember to sun the little cactus our daughter bought with four of her very own dollars (crusty with tooth fairy glitter, natch)? I iced the orchids, so they should be good for the week, but they’re precious and finicky enough that leaving them doesn’t feel quite right.
I’m uneasy about navigating the airport. We’re leaving absurdly early because it’s impossible to predict when Chicago will be a snarl of traffic and when it will clear shot. Will we be racing through security or will I be scraping the bottom of my bag for ways to entertain my kid for three-plus hours? Will we eat?
I’m uneasy about being out of my element. I poked fun at my daughter for packing ten stuffed animals and nary a sock for an eight day trip, but I packed three housecoats, three sets of joggers, a pile of soft shorts and tees, and every mask in the house. I considered the risks of flying with edibles–legal in the state I’m leaving and the one I’m flying too, but apparently still frowned on by TSA–from every angle. We’re both clinging to comfort.
As many times as I’ve wished I could uproot my life in the Midwest to rejoin my family in the desert, I’m uneasy about being with them again. Eight days is a long time. Will we remember how to act with each other? Will we have anything to say? Will they like the person I’ve become? Will I accept the ways they’ve changed or stayed the same? Am I prepare for the more likely scenario: that the week will fly by and I’ll find it impossible to leave.
Tomorrow, May 14, marks fourteen months since my city’s shelter in place order went into effect. My grandma will turn 88. I will turn 36 a day later and the world I’m being re-birthed into is bigger than the one I was sinking into. The time to start thinking about wrapping up this series is here, if not a bit overdue. I’m not exactly living like a monk anymore. In last few weeks alone I’ve been to my office twice, eaten in a restaurant, taken my family to the aquarium, taken myself to the art museum, shopped at Chicago Music Exchange, hosted a birthday party, attended a birthday party, been to multiple in-person medical appointments, had an energy healing session, taken my daughter to school, enrolled her in summer camp, walked maskless with a friend, stepped inside another friend’s house, and purchased plane tickets to see my family in June. All of it has been eventful, but not in the way that venturing out of my house last year was the height of drama. COVID protocols are only a minor irritation. Other people don’t freak me out. My challenges now are in helping my daughter navigate emotionally charged and socially challenging situations without projecting onto her my own baggage and fears, dealing with my physical and mental health, making time for my marriage, reconnecting with family and friends, taking my career to the next level, and figuring out what I want to write next. In other words, my problems are back to what they were before the virus dropped into our lives.
I get that the pandemic isn’t over yet. In the last few weeks that have seen me practically frolicking through town, I’ve also worked mostly from home, attended a virtual conference, pitched new clients on Teams, hosted birthday parties on Zoom, Facetimed with family, texted with friends, supervised my daughter during remote learning, felt awkward talking to people with different COVID risk profiles, been annoyed at people still wearing masks, been pissed at people not wearing masks, searched desperately for reasonable, science-based, non-alarmist guidance about COVID protocols for kids under twelve, fretted about what school will look like for my daughter next year, and zoomed right out of a store when I heard a wet, hacking cough. We’ll be living with COVID aftershocks for a long time, but I’m training myself to stop bracing for them, and to stop second guessing the ways I respond to each new wave. All I can do is what I learned over the last year, which is to make decisions that are consistent with my values and within my capabilities, even if they take me out of lockstep my friends, family, neighbors, and the amorphous crowd of peers and perceived authority figures of whom I used to live in fear.
It’s time to turn my creative mind to other topics. The way this blog goes, I’ll probably have something to say about life in what I hope will be COVID’s end-days the week after I close out the series, sort of the way I, embarrassingly, ironically, keep writing about spirits months after shedding the moniker Sober Mormon. When I started this series, I asked, “how many more identities I will take on and shed before this thing is over?” How much of what I claim to be today will fall by the wayside?” You could say I’ve changed a lot. I would say I’m fundamentally the same person except that I see and move through the world in fundamentally different ways. I also figured out I want to try my hand at fiction. I think it might be a way to tell even more of the truth. I’m sure I’ll be back here, though. I’ve been swearing I’ll stop writing on the internet for almost as long as I’ve been at it.
In a tarot deck, there are a handful of cards that have a bad reputation. Folks having their cards read see these babies in a spread and they get scared. A few of these cards derive their power over our imaginations from their objectively frightening names: Card 13, Death; Card 15, The Devil. Tarot readers tend not to be those cards, though, because the meanings they carry are not inherently bad. Death means change. The Devil means freedom and choice. There is one card that has the power to strike fear into the hearts of readers and querents alike, and that is Card 16, The Tower. The name is innocuous enough, though the imagery is generally upsetting. Traditional decks show lightening splicing a black sky, flames pouring from windows, a fallen crown, people tumbling headfirst toward a rocky ground, and, of course, the eponymous tower, cracking and crumbling down. The real trouble with this card is what it means in a reading, and that is destruction, disorientation, and shocking change. The card is not all ugly, though. Framing the chaos are dabs of yellow gold that could be flames but are actually golden yods–the tenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, signifying the presence of the divine. The crown, representing spiritual consciousness, is tipped over but still intact. The figures in the foreground are falling but they are not dead. The tower will burn but who’s to say what will be rebuilt in its place.
This last year was a Tower year. The pandemic ripped us from our lives and stripped our focus down to the barest essentials. Soap. Toilet paper. Daily breath and daily bread. For a time, everything that was deemed non-essential fell away. Businesses. Acquaintances. Routine physical maintenance.
My life certainly simplified in ways I didn’t expect it could. When I walked away from partnership at a traditional law firm to join a virtual firm in 2019, I insisted on still working out of an office. My new employer bought me a suite of all white office furniture–a large desk and bookcases and filing cabinets and multiple chairs–and all the IT I thought I’d need–a landline, a wide monitor, a printer/scanner, and a shredder for client PHI. I couldn’t imagine doing legal work without binders of documents, without stacks of paper, without a cup full of pens. I couldn’t imagine feeling like a lawyer without my law school textbooks lined up behind me and my diploma hanging over my head. I’ve been in my office exactly once since March 14, 2020. I take meetings at home. I print out nothing. And far from feeling like a pause, the last year saw me doing some of the most sophisticated, high impact work of my career. I don’t need the trappings of a traditional corporate job. All I need my brain, my training, my relationships, and time to work.
When my daughter was in preschool, we started throwing birthday parties. We don’t have family nearby, so we went all out to make her feel special and celebrated, renting party rooms at local play places and inviting every kid she knew. I found the whole event-planning experience–from selecting a date months in advance to plunking down a not insignificant chunk of cash, sending invites to parents I’d never met, tracking RSVPs, and acquiring snacks, cake, decorations, and favors all oriented around a theme–to be incredibly taxing, to the point that I was relieved when I realized that the COVID restrictions in place last April would make any sort of party impossible. When her birthday started to creep up on us this year, I was relieved again. Things had opened enough that we could probably get away with throwing a party, but certainly no one would expect it, least of all my daughter. Until my wonderfully thoughtful, generous, and unselfish husband opened his big genius mouth and suggested she invite a few of her friends over for cupcakes outside. April might seem like a reasonable month for an outdoor birthday party, but in Chicago it is not. In Chicago, April is cold, blustery, rainy, and, most importantly, wildly unpredictable. Without fail, it has snowed the week of her birthday every year since the year our daughter was born, sometimes a few flakes but usually a few inches. In other words, planning an outdoor party in April is an anxious person’s nightmare. Our daughter turned eight last week. We celebrated with family via Zoom on Friday and with friends outside on Saturday. In spite of my worst fears, it came together easily, if not entirely without effort. We invited all of the neighbor kids and a couple of friends from school and church. We scrapped paper and emailed invitations in favor of texts sent a week and a half out. We skipped serving any food other than cake. We briefly considered and then rejected a pinata. We were going to skip favors too, until my aforementioned thoughtful, generous, and genius husband scooped up some bouncy balls and finger skateboards at Target. We did not offer even try for a theme, or decorations. Rainstorms were on the radar, but we didn’t worry about the weather because outdoors was our only option. We didn’t worry about whether people would come because we understood if they didn’t want to. Day of, we put out bubbles and sidewalk chalk and kiddie corn hole and, what do you know, the sun came out and our friends showed up, and our daughter had the best time. She didn’t need the trappings of a traditional suburban birthday party. All she needed was her family, her friends, and time to play.
When the stay-at-home orders first went into place, I added new routines to my days to keep some structure in place, and keep myself sane. Mostly, I kept my body moving. A little yoga flow when I first woke up. A walk around the block before and after work, and a bigger loop around the neighborhood during lunch. Two minute planks and push-ups in the middle of the day. Running four to five days a week plus cross-training on the rower or with weights. This week, I had surgery to remove a precancerous mole from my leg and the most shocking thing about it, other than the size of the scar, was when the surgeon told me I wouldn’t be able to exercise for three weeks. Not even yoga! Not even walking! The version of me that clung to running as an identity and to fitness as a signifier of health and discipline as a hallmark of my self worth would not have coped well with this development. When I got the news, I felt around for that version of myself, for the anxious lady that I was certain was lurking just under my skin, and, to my surprise, I couldn’t find her. She died when Lauren died. She died when my doctor told me the mole in my leg might morph into melanoma. She died when the tower went down. Since the surgery, my days feel eerily like the early days of the pandemic in that I’m not really leaving my house, but this time around I’m not losing my mind. I don’t need a million routines. I don’t need to always be moving and doing. I don’t need to be the best, healthiest version of myself. All I need is to, you know, be. Is this enlightenment? Is this what it’s like to be distilled into the most essential version of yourself?
On April 6, 2021, my magnificent and magnetic friend Lauren and her dear husband Kamel were killed in a horrific car wreck. Lauren died less than a week before she turned 36. Kamel was 38. I met Lauren when I started writing about my life online in 2010. We never met in person, but it didn’t matter. I talked to her more than I talk to members of my own family, more than I talk to my best friends from high school and college combined. I watched her plan wedding and navigate the tricky early years of marriage and career and parenthood. I watched raise two babies into brilliant and beautiful kids. Her oldest was born a month before my daughter, and from what I can tell they are a lot a like. He turned eight weeks before his parents died. His little sister is five. I watched Lauren and Kamel build the kind of life that might have inspired envy except they were so warm and genuine that they only inspired me to live my best life. She inspired me to print out Instagram photos and frame them on my wall. She inspired me to go adventuring with my daughter almost every weekend. She inspired me to start up stay-at-home date nights during the pandemic. She inspired me to try out new recipes on Sunday afternoons. I still can’t wrap my mind around their absence, not from my life but from their own. What their children lost is devastating; as a parent, it’s almost beyond comprehension. But when I think about what Lauren and Kamel will miss it makes me sick. The woman who caused the accident was twenty-six years old, a mom with a toddler in the car, and drunk.
On April 8, 2021, I went to the dermatologist for what I thought was a routine exam and walked out with a biopsy wound the size of a dime.
On April 11, 2021, a police officer shot and killed Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, ten miles from where Derek Chauvin was standing trial for the murder of George Floyd. Daunte was twenty years old, a young man and a dad. His little boy is only two.
On April 12, 2021, I found out about Lauren and Kamel when I saw a link to a GoFundMe in someone’s Instagram profile. I saw their names and feared the worst: that something had happened to one of their kids. “Nononononono” I pleaded as I scoured the internet for information. When I realized they were gone I grabbed my own face and fell on the floor. “Nononononono.”
On April 15, 2021, a gunman walked into a FedEx facility in Indianapolis and opened fire, putting four people in the hospital and killing eight dead.
On April 15, 2021, city officials released video footage of a police officer shooting and killing Adam Toledo in Chicago. Adam was thirteen years old, in seventh grade, and lived in Little Village. Adam has a little brother, who is only eleven, and Adam liked to play with his littler cousins.
From April 12-16, 2021, I got high every day. I told myself I wasn’t avoiding anything. Devastation was an appropriate emotion. I just needed something to take the edge off.
On April 17, 2021, I stayed sober for date night. I felt stabs of happiness and even laughed out loud, but when I touched down everything still hurt.
On April 18, 2021, I made an overly ambitious meal, one with polenta, because that’s something Lauren made. I cooked the roast in red wine and the leeks in beer and got a little bit drunk.
On April 19, 2021, I called the dermatologist’s office. “It’s been a week and a half and I was just wondering if my results were in?” The receptionist was polite but firm. “Sometimes it can take the whole two weeks. Sometimes even longer.”
On April 19, 2021, a friend texted that her floofy dog, beloved to my family as well as to hers, was sick. Something is wrong with his kidneys. He has months to live. She hadn’t told her kids yet, so I’m sure as hell not going to tell mine.
On April 20, 2021, I was scheduled to get my second dose of the vaccine, but I had a low-grade fever. That, along with fatigue, achiness, and general malaise not infrequent for me these days. My heart rate went up and I dipped down into panic. What if they wouldn’t let me get the vaccine? What if I have cancer that’s already metastasized? That would explain why I’ve felt like shit all year. My Outlook calendar dinged, reminding me I was supposed to call a friend from work. My friend told me that ten days ago her dad was diagnosed with cancer, and it didn’t look good. He’s facing chemo, radiation, and possibly surgery. His tumors are terribly positioned. Her mom is disabled, so she has to take him to all his appointments. I had to get off the phone earlier than I wanted to to make my vaccine appointment. The pharm tech didn’t love my fever, but he didn’t turn me away. This time I didn’t talk to anybody else in line. I took a selfie, bought a Vitamin water and a birthday card for my daughter, and got out of there.
On April 20, 2021, police in Columbus, Ohio shot and killed Ma’Khia Bryant. Ma’Khia was sixteen. She liked doing hair and makeup and making videos on TikTok.
On April 20, 2021, the jury returned guilty verdicts across the board. I couldn’t figure out how to react. We already knew Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd.
On April 21, 2021, I waited for Pfizer’s side effects to swim over me. I waited for the dermatologist to call. I told my therapist I can’t see a world in which the news is good. The news is never good. I thought about writing in this blog. Instead, I took a nap in the middle of the day.
On April 22, 2021, I emailed the dermatologist. “It’s been two weeks.” She called me right away. “It’s not cancer but the abnormalities are severe. We have to go back in and cut deeper and wider and send it to the lab again to make sure it’s clear. It’s not cancer but it’s one step away.” “Well, what is it?” I asked. “Basal cell? Squamous?” The doctor took a breath. “It’s pre-melenoma. One step away. We caught it early.” I texted everybody who was waiting with me, but with fewer exclamation points than I’d been hoping to use. It was hard to feel hopeful when the doctor had sounded so serious. I thought I’d feel relieved, but I also thought the results would be more clear. More definitively not cancer or more definitively cancer but a less deadly kind. I was prepared for the worst but expecting the best: nothing at all or cancer that had already spread. I wasn’t ready for more waiting or for this stretched out middle ground
Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about the ways that I might die. I’ve been deathly afraid of car wrecks and guns and men in the dark. I’ve been afraid of neurodegenerative disease and, yes, COVID-19. I have been afraid of the police but not as afraid as if I were not white. I’ve been afraid of dying at my own hand and of dying from drugs. The biggest threat to me was always me. But I was an idiot kid who didn’t know what she had, or what it would look like to leave a family behind. When I think about what I’d miss it makes me sick. The dermatologist warned me that the scar would be big, even alarming. “I don’t care about scars,” I spat back. “That’s a death wish bubbling up under my skin. Cut as deep as you need.”
I am still half-vaccinated. I thought I’d feel a measure of freedom after dose 1, but now that I’m so close, I find I can’t justify changing things up until I reach what the CDC has deemed full protection. Is it just me or is the wait between doses interminable?
My husband got his shot last week. We don’t have the type of marriage where I make appointments for him, but I made an exception for the vaccine. He just wasn’t anxious enough about it for my liking. He was content not only to wait his turn but for appointments to become plentiful. He was sure he would get one eventually. What I wouldn’t give for that kind of confidence and trust in the system. I wasn’t about to gamble our family’s summer plans waiting for an appointment to drop into his lap, though. I pestered him into making an account on Walgreens.com and signing in on my phone and commenced with hitting refresh until I scored him a dose last week. Johnson & Johnson. One and done.
In a few weeks, we’ll both be breathing easier. In the meantime, I’m swatting off a new threat, this one coming from down the hall of my own body. I went to the dermatologist to get a mole checked last week. I figured it was nothing–it was pretty and pink and round with smooth edges–but it sprung up practically overnight (before I got vaccinated, to be clear), and what’s the point of having a dermatologist I can’t email her about mysterious new lumps and bumps? She told me to come in and I scheduled an appointment for a few weeks out, after spring break.
I was excited about the appointment because I thought of it as crossing something annoying off my list. I thought the doctor would glance at my mole and send me on my way with a pat on the back for my hypervigilance after concluding that this thing, like all the other things I’ve worked myself up about over the years, was nothing to worry about. Instead, she peered at it closely through what I can only describe as a doctor’s version of a jeweler’s loop and told me she wanted to do a biopsy. “The risks are scarring, infection, and bleeding. There will definitely be a scar. We will tell you what to do if it gets infected. There might be bleeding. Do you have any bleeding disorders or any blood thinning medication?” My voice must have wavered when I gave my informed consent, because the doctor looked up at me and asked, “Is this what you expected to happen today?” “Um, no. Because it just looks like a normal mole? Even the internet told me not to worry.” The doctor didn’t crack a smile. “Well I’m not sure it is a mole. We need to confirm none of the cells are cancerous.” The shape of the mole was not the root of my surprise, though. I was shocked because my experiences with doctors have largely been limited to them telling me the thing I’m worried about is either all in my head or there’s nothing that can be done. There’s a reason I’ve been beating the drum of mental health for so long on this blog. I’m not accustomed to having my fears validated, much less scraped off my body and sent to the lab.
Hearing the word cancer out of a doctor’s mouth made all my invisible conditions–the dragons I’ve been keeping at bay my entire adult life–seem imaginary, like a joke. The first thing I wanted when I walked out of the dermatology office was a drink, but after a year of COVID and years of sobriety before that, I didn’t know where to go, so I went to the dispensary instead. Oh, and I should have led with this: it was a dark and rainy day.
I’m sure it’s nothing, and even if it’s not, I’m sure I’ll be fine. The biopsy is more likely than not to come back normal. If it doesn’t, they’ll go back in and cut out whatever’s bad. The challenge is living in the space where things might not be fine. We know from the last year that fine was never guaranteed. I spent the day after the biopsy reading about all the skin cancers. I texted the worst-seeming one, Merkel cell carcinoma, to my mom, because some of the pictures on the internet looked just like mole papule on my leg, and because I knew she would indulge my worry. When she didn’t text back for a few hours, I wondered what was up and checked my phone again. Oh shit. I hadn’t sent the texts to my mom, but to a long-time friend who happens to be a doctor. She wasn’t having it. “Merkel cell is so rare!! I’ve only seen it with old men. You don’t have it.” I called my sister, who has skin like mine, and pulled a bossy older sibling move. “Go get your skin checked. We’re supposed to be doing it once a year.” Probably she already knew, but maybe not. I didn’t. I wouldn’t have if it weren’t for COVID. After I got sick last year and freaked out because I didn’t know where to go, I found a primary care doctor who took one look at my pale, freckly skin and my family history of cancer and told me to get to a dermatologist. She was so serious about it she referred me to a competing practice group in town so I could get in sooner.
The biopsy results should be back before I’m due for my second dose of the vaccine, which means I’m languishing in a wait within a wait. The four weeks between shots feels longer than the entire preceding year and the four days it’s been since my biopsy feels even longer than that. You’d think I’d be better at waiting by now. You’d think I’d be a pro at passing time, but this particular stretch is stretching me.
We crept out of town for spring break without telling anyone last week. We even opted to let the trash rot in our garage for a week over asking our neighbors to take the cans out for us. At first I kept our trip quiet because it seemed so extravagant. Who am I to leave town just because I can? Was there ever a time when vacations were a normal part of life? After I told a few people about our plans and was met with reactions that ranged from underwhelmed to visibly disappointed, I saw that there was another reason to fly under the radar: our spring break extravaganza was actually boring as hell. When got back last weekend, our next door neighbor’s face lit up: “Did you get to see your family?!” When I said no, she sighed and slumped her shoulders along with me. “We drove to Michigan and stayed in a vacation rental in the middle of the woods. We saw no one and did next to nothing. We’re still waiting for everybody to get vaccines.”
I was playing up the simplicity of our trip for drama and virtue points. In truth, it was pleasant and picturesque and exactly what we needed. We rented a two-bedroom cottage with a wood burning fireplace at the edge of a gin clear lake. We took meals in the big eat-in kitchen and played games in front of a picture window with a view of the lake and kept a fire going at all times. There was a touch of adventure, too. We crashed around in the woods and plunged our hands in the cold water to fish out pearly shells and built bonfires in the backyard. My daughter scratched her arm on a piece of rusty metal on the dock and shrieked bloody murder when she almost stepped in a dead mouse exploring a pitch dark outbuilding. One day we even drove into town and went quiet as we passed one red-framed flag after another. We should’ve realized it when we booked the place, but didn’t. We didn’t live in Michigan long enough to get to know the state outside of the college town where we lived, and we left a long time ago. Anyway, we were deep in Trump country.
Howard City was a shit town with a terrific restaurant and we planned to get takeout. We pulled up behind the one other car on the main strip. The “Redneck” bumper sticker jumped out at us first, and then the rest materialized like shapes popping out of a stereogram. “Trump 2020.” “Make America Great Again.” “Beard Lives Matter.” “Let’s park somewhere else,” I told my husband. Was there really a time when differing political opinions weren’t cause for alarm? Or at least unease about my personal safety? You could be forgiven for not remembering if there was. You’d have to go back to before Trump tried to steal the election. Before domestic terrorists stormed the Capitol. Before a Michigan militia attempted to kidnap the governor. If you’re Black, you’d have to go back way before that, back before the beginning of this country. There was a time when I thought anti-Black racism was always coded to sound like a secret, or a joke. That’s how it was the way I grew up: white, suburban, middle class. There are places where and people for whom the hatred was always overt. There are people who have never been safe in small towns.
We didn’t mean to eat in the restaurant. It happened by accident, when we drove into town and realized there was nothing else to do and the wind was whipping us around and we looked in the dining room window and saw there was no one there. It was a weird time to be eating, too late for lunch and too early for dinner, but, like I said, there was nothing to do. It was our first time eating indoors in a restaurant in over a year. When we walked in, there was nobody waiting at the host station. We waited for a long time, watching college basketball play on five different TVs. “This is awkward,” my daughter announced, loudly. I would have been embarrassed, but the host didn’t come for a full five minutes after that and I was pleased that my daughter had used the word correctly. Being able to identify situations that call for a joke is a skill that will serve her well.
In the car on the way to town, my daughter had asked, “What’s a forager?” That was the name of the restaurant where we were eating. “It’s a person that gathers food from nature, kiddo. You know, nuts and berries and plants.” Sitting at a table on the edge of the dining room, my daughter stared at something around a corner and out of my sight. “What’s a forager again, mama?” She didn’t look away from whatever she was staring at. I repeated the definition I’d given her in the car, referencing nuts and berries. “Then, um, what’s that person holding?” I craned my neck around the corner to see what she was looking at. There was a flat metal silhouette of a hunter on the wall next to what looked like the restaurant’s front door. Ah. We had come in the back. That explained the awkward wait. The hunter had a gun slung over one shoulder and an axe hanging low in the other hand. He was absolutely draped in game. There was what looked like a bison on his back, birds in the hand with the axe, and two good-sized fish dangling from the front of the gun. If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you know my daughter’s had a hard time with death this year, with dead animals inspiring especially great distress. We’re raising her to be an ethical meat eater, though, so she knows where her food comes from. I adjusted the answer I’d given her before. “Oh. I guess he’s foraging for meat.” She didn’t balk, and ordered a burger with bacon and cheese from the adult menu.
We wore masks until the food came. The server brought out a bowl of steaming hot french onion soup first. My husband and I dug in and burned our tongues. My daughter slipped her mask down to try a bite but didn’t love it. “Why is it so scummed over?” she asked, pulling her mask back up until her meal came. I have friends who brag about their kids’ diligence with masking, holding them up as examples to either inspire or shame adults into behaving better, depending on your perspective. Believe me, that’s exactly the kind of self-righteous mom I am, and I’d brag about my kid’s masking too if there was anything to brag about. She hates wearing masks, though. Last year, she whined when I ask her to put one on and begged to take it off after playing hard for a long time. She says it makes it hard to breathe. Often, she simply chose to stay inside over going to the park or going for a walk. That changed when she started going to school in February. Now she puts her mask on as soon as she leaves the house and doesn’t breathe a bad word against them. I think she realized what she was missing and doesn’t want to risk losing it again. Masks are the trade off. I told my neighbor we didn’t see anyone in Michigan, but that’s not entirely true. We saw proprietors and patrons of small businesses and travelers and most of them were unmasked. We should have planned for it but we didn’t. Our love for Michigan is outsized. We see the forests but not the people. Anyway, the people walking around unmasked indoors with casual disregard for our comfort or safety made me see my daughter’s willingness to wear the masks she detests without complaint in a new light. There are ways in which my coddled city kid is tougher than the burly backwoods Michiganders I was afraid to park behind.
Back to the Forager. The waitstaff there were all masked, though our server’s cloth face covering drooped unfortunately below her nose. We reassured herself that she was probably vaccinated. As a restaurant worker, she would have been eligible, and I’d heard that vaccines were easier to come by in Michigan than Illinois. We told ourselves she was not an anti-vaxxer. We told ourselves she was someone who cared. She seemed like she cared about her job, anyway. We were genuinely unworried. We let our daughter take her time finishing her monster burger. While we waited, my husband wrote out a grocery list. He was making biscuits and gravy for breakfast the next day. The list, when it was finished, was pure Michigan, topped off with Clancy’s Fancy Hot Sauce. I’ve always hated the “Pure Michigan” slogan. It conjures up old Sunday School lessons about used gum and white temples and the squirmy feeling I get when adults talk about adolescent sexuality. The revamped “Two Peninsulas, One Pure Michigan” slogan is even grosser. Loving how much it gives me the creeps, he scrawled “Pure Michigan” at the top of the grocery list, except he wrote it in slanty cursive, so it looked like it said, “Purl Michigan.” That gave me an idea. I grabbed the paper and drew a quick sketch of a quintessential lake girl with a flippy ponytail and a mask drooping underneath her nose. We giggled and when our daughter realized why we were laughing I put my finger to my lips and asked her not to say anything about the mask. I didn’t want to hurt our server’s feelings.
When it was time to go, I grabbed my daughter and danced in the empty dining room to the electropop that had been making me shake my shoulders all afternoon. We’d danced our way out of the almost empty beer garden at Founders Brewing in Grand Rapids the day before, too. Our server at the Forager watched us and I think she was smiling.
We stopped for firewood and groceries before going back to the lake house. I waited in the car with our daughter, knowing we didn’t have any more risk points to spend, if we ever had them in the first place. When my husband got back in the car he said, “I hope I got everything. I left the grocery list at the restaurant.” I thought about our server turning over the paper and recognizing seeing herself in the lake girl with the droopy mask. I thought about how she would have seen our Illinois address when she ran the credit card. For the first time all day, I wondered, Are we the assholes?
It’s a good joke to end this post on that note, but I don’t really think it’s true. We live in a liberal bubble, but we never tried to insulate ourselves here. We have a way of seeing the world that’s influenced by where we live but we don’t pretend it’s the only way to live. We try to venture out with respect and live our values wherever we are. I never fail to think of ways we could do it better, but that doesn’t mean we’re not doing our best. We’re trying, you know?
I’ve always been curious about other people’s morning routines, in a nosy let me take a peek behind the curtain sort of way. This one chick I used to follow on Instagram washes her face with cold water every morning. Another lady I read about on Into The Gloss takes hot baths at 5 a.m. Tammi Salas, an artist and woman I really looked up to in early sobriety, starts the day with a song and a cup of tea and then makes these stunning gratitude lists. Various family members have dabbled in Wim Hof breathing (again, with the cold water!). Wellness influencers over the years have touted the benefits of hot lemon water and apple cider vinegar and vigorous exercise and green juice and fasting, just like beauty influencers swear by twelve step skincare routines but I don’t care about what you put in your body or on top of it, I just want to know what your days feel like, and mornings are where the whole thing kicks off.
Before the pandemic, my mornings used to look like this: alarm goes off between 4:45 and 5:15 a.m. (never hit snooze; can’t, no time); change into the running clothes sitting on a little pile next to my bed; fumble down the stairs; gulp 2 full glasses of water quickly enough to give myself a stomach ache; fall onto my knees in front of the couch (pillow under my aching knees, blanket around my shoulders, happylight blasting in my face); recite prayers from a sheet my sponsor gave me in 2016 (worse than dog eared; crumpled, creased, torn, worn soft); clamber up to sit cross-legged on the couch; read pp. 83-88 in the Big Book (try not to skim); meditate for 5 to 20 minutes (try not to fall asleep); 5-10 minutes of dynamic warm-ups in the middle of the living room; guzzle more water; gear up and head out the door to run 4 to 8 miles (outside or at the gym, weather depending); back home and collapse on the floor for core on the living room rug (maybe put a mat down for sweat, maybe not; this is where my child might enter the picture and start crawling all over me while I try to extend the number of seconds I could hold a side plank); eat a piece of fruit and spoonful of peanut butter; head upstairs for a scalding hot shower; scrunch my hair; apply no-makeup makeup; suit up for the day in a literal suit; wake up my husband; go back downstairs to make breakfast for my daughter; eat with my family; pack a lunch for the day; and leave the house by 8 a.m. to catch a train downtown.
I remember my old morning routine down to the minute because minute-by-minute was how I used to structure my life and because those were the minutes of the day from which I derived most of my well-being and all of my import. To my intense irritation, I couldn’t talk about what I did before I got to work. Sure, I could proselytize about prayer and meditation in recovery groups and share my workout with other runners, but I could never accurately convey just how much I did in a morning. It would be too braggy! Look at my incredible discipline! Look at how spiritually fit I am, and have you seen my banging bod?
The morning routine meant more to me than that, though. Ruth Ann Snow, a writer with a day job that looks a lot like mine, once wrote about taking your cut off the top, and she was talking about making the thing you want to do most, whether it’s writing or walking outside or whatever, the thing that you do first, before life takes over and drains all your good juices. I loved the early hours because they were the ones that were mine for the taking, before my family woke up and my colleagues got online belonged to me suddenly everyone but me was deciding how I spent your day.
When the pandemic hit, I knew it was reasonable to let some of my habits evolve in response to the new, extremely stressful, conditions under which we were living. The morning routine was one that morphed, and morphed is putting it lightly. What happened to the morning routine is that it shriveled up and died. I tried to get it back as the months wore on, I really did, but in the light of day, that old morning routine was not a routine, it was a gauntlet! There’s so much in there I can’t make my spirit or my body do anymore. Waking up at the crack of dawn is just the beginning. It’s the thought of cracking the big book and whispering those rote prayers that makes me go all stiff and brittle inside. The concept of core work makes my stomach turn.
The world turned and I turned with it, into a different kind of person. It’s harder to force things. I can’t sit or walk or dance my through things I find intolerable. My old morning routine was far from empty, but going through the motions now would be.
In so many ways, I fall short of the person I once was. My stomach is soft. My mind is wild. But there is progress on this path, too. There are days when I can sit still long enough to consider whether I actually want to do the thing someone somewhere once told me I had to do (so many committee meetings missed). Occasionally, I can take a beat before swan diving into the thing that I think I have to do (so many angry emails unsent). Now, I am the kind of person who pays close enough attention to my body to realize that the pelvic pain I’ve been ignoring for 18 months is a muscle tear that isn’t going to going away on its own if I don’t stop doing crunchy abs and scissor kicks on my living room floor. The sensation of a quiet mind is familiar enough that I notice when it starts spinning again and what kinds of things set it off. The twelve step program that saved my ass became one of the things that lit a fuse in my brain; that’s why I stopped going to the meetings.
These days, my mornings look like this: Sometimes I wake up early. Sometimes I sleep in as late as my husband. I write morning pages. Sometimes I meditate for three minutes max. If it’s an early day, I might stretch a little bit and brew a cup of tea and write some more. If it’s a later day, I might stay in bed and read. I shoo my kid away when she pops into my space before I’m ready to talk. I skip the shower, get dressed and ready in five minutes flat, and pull a tarot card. I head downstairs for breakfast at a different time every day. I eat breakfast with my family, sometimes with candles, because breakfast is the nicest meal.
What about my cut? Don’t worry, I’m still taking it. Those morning hours are still mine, and now I’m using them to do exactly what I want to do. When I stay in bed it’s because that’s where I want to be, and when I wake up early to write it’s because putting words on the page matters more to me than stacking miles or meditation minutes or sober days. Don’t worry, I still do the other stuff too. The difference is I’m not trying to squeeze it into a window of time before the world wakes up. Bitch, I own all the hours of the day! I have a flexible job; I can finish an essay in the middle of the day. Most men I know exercise after work, before they go home to their families; I can do that. Now, I do do that.
When do I shower? I used to do it late at night because I felt guilty about delaying dinner and not hanging out with kid the second I stepped in the door, so I’d put it off until after bedtime and spend the evening sweaty and cold. By the time I made it to the shower–if I wasn’t too tired to give up on the notion altogether–the hot water would be gone. Now I shower before dinner. I say hello to my family and head straight up stairs, make the water as hot as I can stand it, and stay until I can smell garlic or onions or bacon well enough to know dinner will be on the table when I go back down. I deserve to luxuriate when people are awake, when people are at work, when the world is turning. I live here, too.